Historical Sketches: Volumes 1 To 3 -Blessed John Henry Newman

“The land that was desolate and impassable shall be glad, and the wilderness shall rejoice and shall flourish like the lily. And that which was dry land shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water.”


I HAVE said enough about St. Antony’s history; let me now introduce the reader to his character, which I shall best do by setting before him some unconnected passages, as they occur in the narrative of his life.

It is remarkable that his attempts at curing diseases were not always successful; his prayers being experimental, not, as in the case of the Apostles, immediately suggested by the same Power which was about miraculously to manifest Itself. Of course there were then in the Church, as at all times, extraordinary and heavenly gifts; but still they were distinct from those peculiar powers which we ascribe to the Apostles, as immediate ministers of the Revelation.

“He united in sympathy and prayer with those who were in suffering,” says Athanasius, “and often, and in many cases, the Lord heard him. When heard, he did not boast; when unsuccessful, he did not murmur; but, under all circumstances, he gave thanks himself to the Lord, and exhorted the sufferers to be patient, and to be assured that their cure was out of the power of himself, and indeed of any man, and lay with God only, who wrought when He would, and towards whom He chose. The patients in consequence accepted even the words of the old man as a medicine, learning themselves not to despise the means, but rather to be patient, while those who were healed were instructed not to give thanks to Antony, but to God only.”—§ 56.

This passage deserves notice also, as showing the unvarnished character of the narrative. Superstitious and fabulous histories are not candid enough to admit such failures as are implied in it. The following is to the same purpose. He was asked to allow a paralytic female and her parents to visit him, with the hope of a cure, and he refused, on the ground that, if her life was to be preserved, her own prayers might be efficacious without him.

“ ‘Go,’ he humbly answered, ‘and, unless she be dead already, you will find her cured. This happy event is not my doing, that she should come to me, a miserable man, to secure it; but the cure is from the Saviour, who shows mercy in every place, on those who call upon Him. To her prayers, then, the Lord has been gracious; to me is but revealed, by His loving-kindness, that He means to cure her where she is.’ ”—§ 58.

Antony held that faith had power with God for any work: and he took delight in contrasting with this privilege of exercising faith that poor measure of knowledge which is all that sight and reason open on us at the utmost. He seems to have felt there was a divine spirit and power in Christianity such as irresistibly to commend it to religious and honest minds, coming home to the heart with the same conviction which any high moral precept carries with it, and leaving argumentation behind as comparatively useless, except by way of curiously investigating motives and reasons for the satisfaction of the philosophical analyst. And then, when faith was once in operation, it was the instrument of gaining the knowledge of truths which reason could but feebly presage, or could not even have imagined.

Some philosophers came to discourse with him; he says to them:

“ ‘Since you prefer to insist on demonstrative argument, and, being skilled in the science of it, would have us also refrain from worshipping God without a demonstrative argument, tell me first, how is the knowledge of things in general, and especially of religion, absolutely ascertained? Is it by a demonstration of argument, or through an operative power of faith? And which of the two will you put first?’ They said, Faith, owning that it was absolute knowledge. Then Antony rejoined, ‘Well said, for faith results from a disposition of the soul; but dialectics are from the science of the disputant. They, then, who possess the operative power of faith can supersede, nay, are but cumbered with demonstration in argument; for what we apprehend by faith, you are merely endeavouring to arrive at by argument, and sometimes cannot even express what we apprehend. Faith, then, which operates, is better and surer than your subtle syllogisms.’ ”—§ 77.


“ ‘Instead of demonstrating in the persuasive arguments of Gentile wisdom, as our Teacher says, we persuade by faith, which vividly anticipates a process of argument.’ ”—§ 80.

After curing some demoniacs with the sign of the cross, he adds:

‘ “Why wonder ye at this? It is not we who do it, but Christ, by means of those who believe on Him. Do ye too believe, and ye shall see that our religion lies not in some science of argument, but in faith, which operates through love towards Jesus Christ; which if ye attained, ye too would no longer seek for demonstrations drawn from argument, but would account faith in Christ all-sufficient.’ ”—Ibid.

Antony, as we have already seen, is far from boasting of his spiritual attainments:

“It is not right to glory in casting out devils, nor in curing diseases, nor to make much of him only who casts out devils, and to undervalue him who does not. On the contrary, study the ascetic life of this man and that, and either imitate and emulate or improve it. For to do miracles is not ours, but the Saviour’s; wherefore He said to His disciples, ‘Rejoice not that spirits are subject unto you,’ etc. To those who take confidence, not in holiness but in miracles, and say, ‘Lord, did we not cast out devils in Thy name?’ He makes answer, ‘I never knew you, ‘for the Lord does not acknowledge the ways of the ungodly. On the whole, then, we must pray for the gift of discerning spirits, that, as it is written, we may not believe every spirit.”—§ 38.

In like manner he dissuades his hearers from seeking the gift of prophecy; in which he remarkably differs from heathen ascetics, such as the Neo-platonists, who considered a knowledge of the secret principles of nature the great reward of their austerities.

“What is the use of hearing beforehand from the evil ones what is to happen? Or, why be desirous of such knowledge, even though it be true? It does not make us better men; nor is it a token of religious excellence at all. None of us is judged for what he does not know, nor accounted happy for his learning and acquirements; but in each case the question is this, whether or not he has kept the faith, and honestly obeyed the commandments? Wherefore we must not account these as great matters, nor live ascetically for the sake of them—viz. in order to know the future; but to please God by a good conversation. But if we are anxious at all to foresee what is to be, it is necessary to be pure in mind. Certainly I believe that that soul which is clean on every side, and established in its highest nature, becomes keen-sighted, and is able to see things more and further than the devils, having the Lord to reveal them to it. Such was the soul of Eliseus, which witnessed Giezi’s conduct, and discerned the heavenly hosts which were present with it.”—§ 34.


These extracts have incidentally furnished some evidence of the calmness, and I may say coolness of Antony’s judgment—i.e. waiving the question of the truth of the principles and facts from which he starts. I am aware that an objector would urge that this is the very peculiarity of aberrations of the intellect, to reason correctly upon false premisses; and that Antony in no way differs from many men nowadays, whom we consider unable to take care of themselves. Yet surely, when we are examining the evidence for the divine mission of the Apostles, we do think it allowable to point out their good sense and composure of mind, though they assume premisses as Antony does. And, considering how extravagant and capricious the conduct of enthusiasts commonly is, how rude their manners, how inconstant their resolutions, how variable their principles, it is certainly a recommendation to our solitary to find him so grave, manly, considerate, and refined,—or, to speak familiarly, so gentlemanlike, in the true sense of that word. We see something of this in the account which Athanasius gives us of his personal appearance after his twenty years’ seclusion, which has nothing of the gaunt character, or the uncouth expression, of one who had thrown himself out of the society of his fellow-men. I shall be obliged to make a long extract, if I begin; and yet I cannot help hoping that the reader will be pleased to have it.

“He had now spent nearly twenty years exercising himself thus by himself, neither going abroad nor being seen for any time by any one. But at this date, many longing to copy his ascetic life, and acquaintances coming and forcibly breaking down and driving in the door, Antony came forth as from some shrine, fully perfect in its mysteries, and instinct with God. This was his first appearance outside the enclosure, and those who had come to see him were struck with surprise at the little change his person had undergone, having neither a full habit, as being without exercise, nor the shrivelled character which betokens fasts and conflicts with the evil ones. He was the same as they had known him before his retreat. His mind also was serene, neither narrowed by sadness nor relaxed by indulgence, neither over-merry nor melancholy. He showed no confusion at the sight of the multitude, no elation at their respectful greetings. The Lord gave him grace in speech, so that he comforted many who were in sorrow, and reconciled those who were at variance, adding in every case, that they ought to set nothing of this world before love towards Christ. And while he conversed with the people, and exhorted them to remember the bliss to come, and God’s loving-kindness to us men in not sparing His own Son, but giving Him up for us all, he persuaded many to choose the monastic life. And from that time monasteries have been raised among the mountains, and the desert is made a city by monks leaving their all and enrolling themselves in the heavenly citizenship.”

His biographer then goes on to record one of his discourses. It was spoken in the Egyptian language, and ran as follows:

“Holy Scripture is sufficient for teaching, yet it is good to exhort one another in the faith, and refresh one another with our discourses. You then, as children, bring hither to your father whatever you have learned; and I in turn, as being your elder, will now impart to you what I have experienced. Let this preeminently be the common purpose of every one of you, not to give in when once you have begun, not to faint in your toil, not to say, ‘We have been long enough at these exercises.’ Rather as though, day after day, we were beginning for the first time, let our zeal grow stronger; for even the whole of human life is very short compared with eternity, or rather nothing. And every thing in this world has its price, and you get no more than an equivalent; yet the promise of everlasting life is bought at a trifling purchase. ‘The days of our years are three score and ten years,’ as Scripture says, ‘and if, in the strong, they be four score;’ yet, did we persist in our exercises for the whole four score, or for a hundred, this would not be the measure of our reign in glory. Instead of a hundred years, we shall reign for ages upon ages; not upon this poor earth upon which is our struggle, but our promised inheritance is in heaven. We lose a corruptible body to receive it back incorruptible.

“Wherefore, my children, let us not weary, nor think we have been a long while toiling, or that we are doing any great thing; for our present sufferings are not to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us. Let us not look at the world, or reckon we have made great sacrifices, for even the whole earth is but a small spot compared to the expanse of heaven. Though we had possessed it all, and had given it all up, it is nothing to the kingdom of heaven. It is no more than a man’s making little of one copper coin in order to gain a hundred gold ones; thus he who is lord of the whole earth, and bids it farewell, does but give up little and gains a hundredfold. But if the whole earth be so little, what is it to leave a few acres? or a house? or a store of gold? Surely we should not boast or be dejected upon such a sacrifice. If we do not let these things go for virtue’s sake, at death at length we shall leave them, and often to whom we would not, as says Ecclesiastes. What gain is it to acquire what we cannot carry away with us? Far different are prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, understanding, charity, love of the poor, faith towards Christ, gentleness, hospitality; obtain we these, and we shall find them there before us, making ready a dwelling for us in the country of the meek.”

After reminding his brethren that they have the Lord to work with them, and that they must fulfil the Apostles’ rule of dying daily,—by rising as though they should not last till evening, and going to rest as though they should never rise, “life being of an uncertain nature, doled out by Providence from day to day,” he continues:

“Therefore, having now set out upon the path of virtue, let us rather stretch forward to what is before. Be not alarmed when you hear speak of virtue, nor feel towards the name as if you were strangers to it; for it is not far from us, it is not external to us; the work is in us, and the thing is easy, if we have but the will. Greeks travel beyond the sea to learn letters,—we need not travel for the kingdom of heaven, or cross the sea for virtue. Christ anticipates us,’ The kingdom of heaven (He says) is within you;’ virtue needs but the will.

“We have able and subtle enemies, the evil spirits; with these we must wrestle, as the Apostle says. There is need of much prayer and self-discipline to gain, through the Holy Spirit, the gift of discerning of spirits, to detect their nature, viz. which of them are the less abandoned, which the more, what is the aim of each, what each affects, and how each is overthrown and ejected. When the Lord came on earth, the enemy fell, and his power waxed weak; therefore, as being a tyrant, though powerless, he keeps not quiet even in his fall, but threats, for he can do no more. Let each of you consider this, and he may scorn the evil spirits. Behold, we are here met together and speak against them, and they know that, as we make progress, they will grow feebler. Had they then leave, they would suffer none of us Christians to live; had they power, they would not come on with a noise, or put forth phantoms, or change their shapes to further their plans; one of them would be enough, did he come, to do what he could and wished to do. Such as have power do not make a display in order to kill another, nor alarm by noises, but use their power to effect at once what they wish. But evil spirits, since they can do nothing, are but as actors in a play, changing their shapes and frightening children by their tumult and their make-belief; whereas the true Angel of the Lord, sent by Him against the Assyrians, needed not tumult, appearance, noise, or clatter, but, in that quiet exercise of his power, he slew at once a hundred four score and five thousand. But the devils have not power even over the swine: much less over man made in God’s image.”—§§ 14–29.


What can be more calm, more fearless, more noble than his bearing in this passage? Call his life a romance, if you think fit; still, I say, at least, we have in the narrative the ideal of a monk, according to the teaching of the fourth century. You cannot say that Antony was a savage self-tormentor, an ostentatious dervise; that he had aught of pomposity or affectation, aught of cunning and hypocrisy. According to Athanasius’s description—who was personally acquainted with him—

“His countenance had a great and extraordinary beauty in it. This was a gift from the Saviour; for, if he was in company with a number of monks, and any stranger wished to have a sight of him, directly that he came to them, he would pass by the rest, and run to Antony, as being attracted by his appearance. Not that he was taller or larger than others; but there was a peculiar composure of manner and purity of soul in him. For, being unruffled in soul, all his outward expressions of feeling were free from perturbation also; so that the joy of his soul made his very face cheerful, and from the gestures of the body might be understood the composure of his soul, according to the text, ‘A glad heart maketh a cheerful countenance; but by grief of mind the spirit is cast down.’ Thus Jacob detected Laban’s treachery, and said to his wives, ‘I see your father’s countenance, that it is not towards me as yesterday.’ Thus Samuel, too, discovered David; for he had beaming eyes, and teeth white as milk. In like manner one might recognise Antony; for he was never agitated, his soul being in a deep calm,—never changed countenance, from his inward joyfulness.”—§ 67.

His own words assign one of the causes of this tranquillity. He says:

“The vision granted us of the holy ones is not tumultuous; for ‘He shall not contend, nor cry out,’ nor shall any one hear their voice. So quietly and gently does it come, that the soul is straightway filled with joy, exultation, and confidence, knowing that the Lord is with them, who is our joy, and God the Father’s power. And its thoughts are preserved from tumult and tempest; so that, being itself illuminated fully, it is able of itself to contemplate the beings that appear before it. A longing after divine and future things takes possession of it, till it desires altogether to be joined unto them, and to depart with them. Nay, and if there be some who, from the infirmity of man, dread the sight of these good ones, such apparitions remove their alarm at once by their love, as Gabriel did to Zacharias, and the Angel at the divine tomb to the women, and that other who said to the shepherds in the Gospel, ‘Fear not.’ ”—§ 35.

Such sentiments, beautiful as they are, might in another be ascribed to mere mysticism; but not so in the case of Antony, considering his constant profession and practice of self-denying and active virtue, and the plain practical sense of his exhortations. He took a vigorous part in the religious controversies of his day, reverencing the authorities of the Church, and strenuously opposing both the Meletian schismatics and the Arians. The following is an account of another of his interviews with heathen philosophers. They came with the hope of jeering at his ignorance of literature:

“Antony said to them, ‘What do you say? which is prior, the mind or letters? And which gives rise to which, mind to letters, or letters to mind?’ When they answered that mind was prior, and invented letters, Antony replied, ‘He, then, whose mind is in health, does not need letters.’ This answer struck all who were present, as well as the philosophers. They went away surprised that an uneducated man should show such understanding. For, indeed, he had nothing of the wildness of one who had lived and grown old on a mountain; but was polished in his manners, and a man of the world.”—§ 73.

It has sometimes been objected, that hagiographists commonly fail in point of dignity, in the miracles which they introduce into their histories. I am not called here to consider the force of this objection; but Antony at least is clear of the defect; had his miracles and visions been ascribed to St. Peter or St. Paul, I conceive they would not have been questioned, evidence being supposed. For instance:

“Once, when he was going to take food, having stood up to pray, about the ninth hour, he felt himself carried away in spirit, and, strange to say, he saw himself, as if out of himself, while he stood looking on, and borne into the air by certain beings. Next, he saw some hateful and terrible shapes, stationed in the air, and stopping the way to prevent his passing on. His conductors resisted, but they asked whether he was not impeachable. But on their beginning to reckon up from his birth, his conductors interrupted them, saying, ‘The Lord has wiped out all his earlier sins; but a reckoning may lawfully be made from the time he became a monk, and promised himself to God.’ His accusers hereupon began; but, when they could prove nothing, the way became clear and open; and immediately he found himself returned, as it were, to himself, and forming with himself one Antony as before. Then forgetting his meal, he remained the rest of that day, and the whole of the following night, groaning and praying; for he was astonished at finding against how many we have to wrestle, and by what an effort we must pass through the air heavenward. He remembered that this is what the Apostle said, ‘the prince of the power of this air,’—and his special exhortation in consequence, ‘Put on the panoply of God, that ye may be able to resist in the evil day.’ When we heard it, we called to mind the Apostle’s words, ‘Whether in the body, or out of the body, I know not; God knoweth.’ ”—§ 65.


“He had had a discussion with some persons, who had come to him, concerning the passage of the soul, and the abode which was allotted to it. On the following night, some one calls him from above in these words, ‘Antony, rise, go forth, and behold.’ Accordingly he went forth, knowing whom he should obey, and, looking up, he saw a huge something, unsightly and horrid, standing and reaching up to the clouds, and beings were ascending as if with wings, and it was catching at them with its hands. Of these, it brought some to a stand; while others, flying past it, went upwards without further trouble. In such cases, that huge monster would gnash its teeth; rejoicing, on the other hand, over those whom it cast down. Immediately Antony heard a voice, saying, ‘Look, and understand.’ And his mind was opened, and he comprehended that he saw the passage of souls, and the enemy, envious of the faithful, seizing and stopping those whom he had an advantage over, but foiled in his attempts upon those who had not obeyed him. After this vision, taking it as a warning, he made still more strenuous efforts to advance forward daily.”—§ 66.

Once more:

“Once, when he was sitting and working, he fell into a trance, and groaned much at the sight he saw. After a while, he turned to those who were with him groaning, and prayed with much trembling, remaining a long time on his knees. When, at length, he rose, the old man began to weep. His friends, trembling and in great alarm themselves, begged to know what it was, and urged him till he was forced to tell. ‘O, my children,’ he said at length, with a deep sigh, ‘it were better to die before that vision is fulfilled.’ On their pressing him, he continued with tears, ‘Wrath is about to overtake the Church, which is to be given over to men like irrational brutes. For I saw the table of the Lord’s house hemmed in by mules, who were striking about with their hoofs at everything within, as is the way with unmannered beasts. You see, now, why I groaned so much; for I heard a voice, saying, My altar shall be polluted.’ This the old man saw; two years after, the assaults of the Arians took place, when they plundered the churches, and gave the sacred vessels to heathens to carry, and compelled the heathens from the workshops to attend their religious meetings with them, and in their presence wanton insults offered to the Lord’s table.”—§ 82.


At length the hour came for him to die; and Antony and his monks made their respective preparations for it. The narrative runs thus:

“The brethren urging him to remain with them, and there finish his course, he would not hear of it, as for other reasons, which were evident, even though he did not mention them, so especially because of the custom of the Egyptians in respect to the dead. For the bodies of good men, especially of the holy martyrs, they used to enfold in linen cloths; and, instead of burying, to place them upon biers, and keep them within their houses, thinking thus to honour the departed. Antony had applied even to bishops on this subject, begging them to admonish their people; and had urged it upon laymen, and had rebuked women, saying, that the practice was consistent neither with received rule, nor at all with religion. ‘The bodies of patriarchs and prophets are preserved to this day in sepulchres; and the Lord’s body itself was laid in a tomb, and a stone at the entrance kept it hidden till He rose the third day.’ By such arguments he showed the irregularity of not burying the dead, however holy; ‘for what can be more precious or holy than the Lord’s body?’ And he persuaded many to bury for the future, giving thanks to the Lord for such good instruction.”

This was a matter of discipline and of discretion, as to which the custom of the Church may vary at different times; but with that we are not concerned here; to proceed:

“Antony, then, being aware of this, and fearing lest the same should be done to his own body, bidding farewell to the monks in the outer mountain, made hastily for the inner mountain, where he commonly dwelt, and after a few months, fell ill. Then calling to him two who lived with him, as ascetics, for fifteen years past, and ministered to him on account of his age, he said to them,’ I, as it is written, go the way of my fathers; for I perceive I am called by the Lord. You, then, be sober, and forfeit not the reward of your long asceticism; but, as those who have made a beginning, be diligent to hold fast your earnestness. Ye know the assaults of the evil spirit, how fierce they are, yet how powerless. Fear them not; rather breathe the spirit of Christ, and believe in Him always. Live as if dying daily; take heed to yourselves, and remember the admonitions you have heard from me. Have no fellowship with the schismatics, nor at all with the heretical Arians. Be diligent the rather to join yourselves, first of all, to the Lord, next to the Saints, that after death they may receive you as friends and intimates into the eternal habitations. Such be your thoughts, such your spirit; and if you have any care for me, remember me as a father. Do not let them carry my body into Egypt, lest they store it in their houses. One of my reasons for coming to this mountain was to hinder this. You know I have ever reproved those who have done this, and charged them to cease from the custom. Bury, then, my body in the earth in obedience to my word, so that no one may know the place, except yourselves. In the resurrection of the dead it will be restored to me incorruptible by the Saviour. Distribute my garments as follows:—let Athanasius, the bishop, have the one sheep-skin and the garment I sleep on, which he gave me new, and which has grown old with me. Let Serapion, the bishop, have the other sheepskin. As to the hair-shirt, keep it for yourselves. And now, my children, farewell; Antony is going, and is no longer with you.’

“After these words, they kissed him. Then he stretched himself out, and seemed to see friends come to him, and to be very joyful at the sight (to judge from the cheerfulness of his countenance as he lay), and so he breathed his last, and was gathered to his fathers. His attendants, as he had bidden them, wrapped his body up, and buried it: and no one knows yet where it lies, except these two. As to the two friends who were bequeathed a sheep-skin a-piece of the blessed Antony, and his tattered garment, each of them preserves it as a great possession. For when he looks at it, he thinks he sees Antony; and when he puts it on, he is, as it were, carrying about him his instructions with joy.”—§§ 90, 92.

Such was in life and death the first founder of the monastic system; and his example, both as seen, and far more in the narrative of his biographer, was like a fire kindled in Christendom, which “many waters could not quench.” Not that I would defend the details of any popular form of religion, considering that its popularity implies some condescension to the weaknesses of human nature; yet, if I must choose between the fashionable doctrines of one age and of another, certainly I shall prefer that which requires self-denial, and creates hardihood and contempt of the world, to some of the religions now in esteem, which rob faith of all its substance, its grace, its nobleness, and its strength, and excuse self-indulgence by the arguments of spiritual pride, self-confidence, and security;—which, in short, make it their boast that they are more comfortable than that ancient creed which, together with joy, leads men to continual smiting on the breast, and prayers for pardon, and looking forward to the judgment-day, as to an event really to happen to themselves individually.

The following is Athanasius’s account of the effect produced by Antony in Egypt, even in his lifetime; and perhaps in his lifetime it was not only in its beginning, but in its prime. For all things human tend not to be, and the first fervour of zeal and love is the most wonderful. Yet even when its original glory had faded, the monastic home was ever, as now, the refuge of the penitent and the school of the saint. But let us hear Athanasius:

“Among the mountains there were monasteries, as if tabernacles filled with divine choirs, singing, studying, fasting, praying, exulting in the hope of things to come, and working for almsdeeds, having love and harmony one towards another. And truly it was given one there to see a peculiar country of piety and righteousness. Neither injurer nor injured was there, nor chiding of the tax-collector; but a multitude of ascetics, whose one feeling was towards holiness. So that a stranger, seeing the monasteries and their order, would be led to cry out, ‘How beauteous are thy homes, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel; as shady groves, as a garden on a river, as tents which the Lord has pitched, and as cedars by the waters.’ ”—§ 44.

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